Alice in Chains: The Untold Story - Layne Staley's final gloomy days as the frontman of the Seattle grunge legends

Alice in Chains
(Image credit: Press)

In this saddening except from Alice in Chains: The Untold Story, author David De Sola recounts the final gloomy days of frontman Layne Staley.

In April of 1997, an entity known as the Larusta Trust bought a three bedroom, 1,500 square-foot fifth-floor condominium at a building in Seattle’s University District for $262,000.

A review of the property records, when cross-referenced with Alice in Chains album liner notes and other public records, shows that the Larusta Trust shared the same Bellevue address as the business entity AIC Touring Inc. and VWC Management, a business management and accounting firm that has counted Alice in Chains among its clients in the past.

Larusta was a reference to John Larusta, the alias Layne was using at the time, according to Ken Elmer. The property was acquired through this roundabout mechanism presumably to keep Layne’s name off any public records associated with the transaction. This condo would be Layne’s home for the final five years of his life.

At some point after Layne moved in, producer Toby Wright set up a home recording studio for him. Wright described it as, “I think he had some [Alesis Digital Audio Tapes] up there, a small console. I set up guitar paths, I set up a couple of vocal paths, and I think I had a keyboard path as well, and some multiple things where he could just go in, hit a button and record… He had a little drum machine and that kind of thing, he used to do demos.”

Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell seemingly confirmed the existence of Layne solo recordings or demos during a 2010 interview, saying, “I’d fucking go over to his place and he’d be playing me shit he’d be writing all the time. I would too. He’d play me stuff, I’d play him stuff, vice-versa.” He did not specify the period when he heard these recordings, if they were from the period when Alice in Chains was still active or if they were from Layne’s later years.

Jerry also said in the same interview that there are no more unreleased Alice in Chains recordings with Layne’s vocals, although drummer Sean Kinney did not entirely rule out the possibility. “If there is, it’s nothing that we would want, or he would have wanted released.”

Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice In Chains performing on MTV Unplugged in 1996

Layne Staley performs with Alice in Chains on MTV Unplugged in 1996 (Image credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Jamie, Jim and Ken Elmer [Layne’s step-brother] are unaware of any solo demos Layne might have recorded during his later years, though he had the means to do so. The one person that would know for sure is his mother, who declined to be interviewed for this book. Layne did at least one confirmed guest recording from this period.

His friend Jesse Holt - known as Maxi when he was the singer/guitarist of Second Coming - was working on a new project under the moniker the Despisley Brothers -the name presumably a play on the R&B group the Isley Brothers. Layne re-recorded his guest vocal for the chorus of the song The Things You Do, which is musically different from the version he recorded with Ron Holt in 1988.

There are at least two recorded versions of this song, the first from the spring or summer of 1996, the second dated November 3, 1997. Musically and lyrically, the two later versions are the same. Stylistically, Layne’s vocals sound very different from any of his previous work. The difference is that in the 1997 version, he sounds indifferent, with no real power or feeling in the performance.

Jason Buttino, who has recordings of both versions, attributes the change to the fact the second version was recorded more than a year after the death of Demri Parrott, Layne’s longtime girlfriend. Buttino also said Jesse Holt - who declined to be interviewed for this book - had to boost the level on Layne’s vocals in the 1997 version because his voice was so soft and quiet.

I’m looking past this really skinny, fucked-up looking guy trying to see where Layne is, and it was Layne. I felt really awkward

Randy Biro, Alice in Chains collaborator

Soundgarden broke up in spring of 1997 amidst rising tensions. The band played what at the time was their final show in Honolulu on February 9. Chris Cornell decided to call it quits shortly after. Susan Silver Management and A&M Records issued a joint statement announcing the split.

In October of 1997, according to a report in the Seattle Times, Susan was a panelist during a discussion about rock management at North By Northwest Music and Media Conference. Susan responded to a questioner saying her gender never blocked her progress - “It didn't even enter my sphere of reality.” The report also notes, “She also hinted, with a sigh, that Alice is about to ‘self-destruct.’ ”

That fall, Susan announced she was closing down her management business. The news was mentioned in the Lip Service section of The Rocket, which also made the sarcastic comment, “Sources within the company report that Silver will close up the shop near the end of December. Sure, Soundgarden don’t need a manager anymore, but who will burp and change Alice in Chains?”

At some point after that edition was published, the magazine received a package containing a jar of urine and a bag of feces. It also included a note, which read, “Wipe and change this, motherfuckers!” The assumption is it came from Layne.

Susan Silver Management organized a Christmas party that year, held at a bar in the U District. Randy Biro, a musician who contributed vocals to the 1994 AIC EP Jar of Flies, went to the party, along with his former roommate Kevin Shuss, who has worked with Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam over the years.

“Hey, Layne wants to see you,” Shuss told Biro at the party.

“Great, where is he?”

“He’s right behind you.”

Biro turned around. “I’m looking past this really skinny, fucked-up looking guy trying to see where Layne is, and it was Layne. I felt really awkward.”

“He had a baseball cap on, he had glasses down to the end of his nose, and not very many teeth. It shocked me at first. It looked like death. It was gross.” Jim Elmer doesn’t know exactly when Layne’s tooth loss started, but thinks it was around 1995 or 1996 and said it was a gradual process.

Layne invited Biro to check out his condo, which was around the corner from the bar. He described Layne as being very proud about his home. Layne had a massive rear-projection TV. “The fucking thing was huge. I’d never seen a TV that big. He had gotten it through the label some way, and all he did was sit there and get high and play video games all day.”

Biro, who was clean, asked, “Wow, have you got anything?” - referring to drugs.

“Yeah, but I’m not gonna give it to you.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re clean. I’m not gonna be part of this. If you need to go do that, you do it somewhere else. I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t want you to end up like me again.” That was the last time Biro saw him.

With Alice in Chains on hiatus, Jerry Cantrell called Toby Wright. “He was compiling songs for a while, and then he just called me up and asked if I would help out with a solo record, which I gladly did,” Wright said.

Jerry tapped Sean to play drums, and a series of guest musicians to record parts, including Mike Inez, Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher, Pantera’s Rex Brown, and Primus’ Les Claypool. Three of the four members of Alice in Chains were appearing on this album, with the exception of Layne.

“At that point, they weren’t really speaking for whatever reason. There was some kind of something going on. I don’t know the cause of it or why,” was Wright’s explanation for whether or not Jerry tried to get Layne onboard. Wright said there was more pressure on Jerry because in addition to being the main songwriter and guitarist, he had to sing.

A lot of anxiety was pent up during the recording of Boggy Depot, about its outcome, its success rate, expectations, all that kind of stuff

Toby Wright

The album was titled Boggy Depot - a reference to the area of Oklahoma where Jerry’s father grew up. Rocky Schenck, Mary Mauer and a crew traveled to Atoka, Oklahoma, on September 7, 1997, to shoot photos for the album.

“Great trip, although all of us almost got arrested for smuggling liquor into a local restaurant in a dry county,” Schenck wrote. The cover shows Jerry covered in mud standing waist-deep in a branch of the Boggy River. Jerry made several trips to Oklahoma as he was writing the album, and would drive his truck to the edge of the river at the location where the cover was shot.

Jerry sent Rex Brown a tape with 11 songs he wanted him to play on. Brown agreed to do it, seeing it as an opportunity to expand his horizons and also to get away from some of the issues in Pantera. He went to Sausalito, California, to record his parts.

According to Brown’s memoir, he was butting heads with Toby Wright during the making of the album. He also noted Jerry was dealing with his own addiction: “Let’s just say I would go past his place from time to time and see his dog chained up with no food in the bowl for three fucking days, and that indicated to me that maybe something was seriously wrong.”

By the time the album was finished, Wright said, “A lot of anxiety was pent up during the recording, about its outcome, its success rate, expectations, all that kind of stuff. And I think once it was done, mixed, [Jerry] approved everything, I think it was a great relief to him.” The album, originally scheduled for an October 1997 release, was delayed to the following spring.

Boggy Depot was released April 7, 1998, reaching number 28 on the Billboard chart its first week. After the album’s release, Jerry made clear that Alice in Chains was his priority, but would not give a definitive answer on the status of the band at the time. “It’s something I never really wanted to do, but the way things have played out, it's like, why not?” he told Guitar World of his decision to do a solo album.

“To be honest, I’d just be happy being the lead guitarist and singer for Alice in Chains. It’s always been my first love, and always will be, but the situation being what it is…we’ve been together for a long time, and right now it’s kinda played out. It’s time to let it be.”

Asked if the band had broken up, he said, “We haven’t gone public and said that we’ve broken up, because how do you call something like that over? You never want to shut that door. I love those guys, and hopefully we’ll be able to do something again, but it won’t be for a while.” He declined to answer questions about Layne’s health.

Rocky Schenck directed the music video for My Song, which was shot on location in Los Angeles on June 6 and 7, 1998. “I can remember the record company being very upset with me about the concept, telling me that it ‘would never play on MTV,’ ” Schenck wrote. Jerry supported Schenck throughout the project and it was filmed as planned. There is a second version of the video, “a bit racier” than the edited version that aired on MTV.

To support the album, Jerry put together a live band consisting of Sean, former Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo, Old Lady Litterbug bassist Nick Rhinehart, and former Fishbone keyboardist Chris Dowd. The group landed an opening slot for Metallica’s U.S. tour which ran from June through September of 1998. Jerry would often close shows with a cover of Pink Floyd’s Brain Damage and Eclipse, the last two songs on The Dark Side of the Moon.

Layne Staley, Alice In Chains, performing on stage, Ahoy, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 17th October 1993

Staley performs live at Ahoy in Rotterdam, Netherlands on October 17 1993 (Image credit: Niels van Iperen/Getty Images)

In August of 1998, Dave Jerden, Bryan Carlstrom and Annette Cisneros were working on the Offspring’s Americana album at Jerden’s El Dorado studio. Jerden got a call: Alice in Chains wanted to record two new songs with Layne for Music Bank, their upcoming box set. With the exception of Mike Inez, it would be a reunion of the band and production team that made Dirt six years earlier.

Because The Offspring had booked studio time and had all their gear set up, the only time Alice in Chains could come in was the weekend of August 22-23. The Offspring agreed to let Alice in Chains use the studio. The fact both bands were signed to Columbia Records probably helped make that happen.

For Jerden, it was a no-brainer. “We gotta do this,” he told his engineer Bryan Carlstrom. Carlstrom was tired from working long hours and originally did not want to do it, until Jerden convinced him otherwise. “I basically told him you have to do it. It’s the only time in my life where I ever said that to Bryan.”

Jerden was under the impression the band was going to be there the entire weekend, based on what he heard from his manager who had talked to Susan. His plan was to record a song a day - basic tracks, overdubs and mixing. Because Carlstrom was burned out, Jerden was prepared to mix the songs himself.

Early in the morning of Saturday, August 22, assistant engineer Cisneros and Elan Trujillo, the runner and studio assistant, came in and thoroughly documented all of the levels and settings on the Offspring’s gear and the control room equipment before they could take everything down and set up for Alice in Chains.

Trujillo was excited. He had moved back to Los Angeles specifically to work with Dave Jerden, in large part because of Jerden’s work with Jane’s Addiction and Alice in Chains. Two years later, he had the opportunity to work with Alice in Chains.

“I had to contain myself as best I could, because I was like freaking out. For me, this young kid, and like one of my favorite bands of all time is gonna come in, like I’m gonna be able to work with these guys? This is it! This was the culmination of the whole deal,” Trujillo said, the enthusiasm still evident in his voice years later.

The production team was ready to work by 10 o’clock in the morning. Sean’s drum tech Jimmy Shoaf and Jerry’s guitar tech Darrel Peters were the first to arrive, and set up all their gear. That day also happened to be Layne’s thirty-first birthday. When Trujillo found out, he told Cisneros they should get him a cake. She agreed, and gave him money to buy a cake and candles.

Jerry, Sean and Mike arrived in the late morning or early afternoon. Sean got all his parts down in about four takes, Shoaf recalled. Mike recorded his bass parts, and then Jerry recorded his rhythm guitar parts and some overdubs. Cisneros had her camera and took several photos during the session.

Layne showed up at the studio and I didn’t recognize him. He looked like an 80-year-old man

Engineer Bryan Carlstrom

There was a sense of excitement before Layne arrived. Accounts vary as to the exact time he got there, but it was late - possibly as late as 3 A.M. according to Jerden. When he finally arrived, the change in his physical appearance was striking even from his final live performances two years earlier, let alone from 1992 when Jerden, Carlstrom and Cisneros had last seen him.

He had grown his hair down past his shoulders, in its natural brownish-blonde color. He was wearing a white cap and eyeglasses. He had a dark grey shirt and a blue Dallas Cowboys jacket. He was wearing a necklace or chain that had what appeared to be a pipe hanging from the end. He was also carrying a black leather satchel.

“Layne showed up at the studio and I didn’t recognize him. He looked like an 80-year-old man. He didn’t have any teeth. I was shocked, to say the least,” Carlstrom recalled.

Trujillo had a similar reaction. “When Layne came in, we were all really shocked because Layne definitely didn’t look like how he used to look. He had obviously been really affected by his substance abuse at that point, because he had atrophy in his legs. He looked like an old man. He had no teeth. It was really sad, I was really heartbroken.” Although Layne was “obviously high,” Jimmy Shoaf said there were flashes of the Layne of old. “I think the first thing he did was grab my ass. Layne was still inside that shell. The humor and his wit were in there.”

Trujillo also noted how Layne could appear out of it, then be focused seconds later. They had ordered baked potatoes, and people wanted butter. Trujillo put the butter in the microwave to defrost it, when Layne, who was sitting in the kitchen lounge seemingly not paying attention, said to him, “You better be careful, man. That’s got tinfoil on it. That’ll be dangerous in the microwave.” Layne also talked to Trujillo about video games - there was a Sony Playstation in the studio lounge, and Layne was giving him tips for how to get ahead in certain games.

They set Layne up in a control room so he could listen to the rough tracks and work on lyrics. Trujillo was tasked with keeping an eye on him and helping him. Shortly after, Layne went to the bathroom and stayed there for a long time. He eventually went back to the control room, where he found the mini-fridge stocked with sodas. Layne took out a bottle of root beer. Cisneros and Trujillo saw him sitting on a couch in the control room having nodded off, the root beer spilled on the floor. Trujillo cleaned it up.

Offspring drummer Ron Welty’s V drums were set up in the control room to practice or develop his parts. V drums are a small electronic drum kit which can be programmed with different sound effects from a memory bank. Layne started playing around with the kit. Trujillo showed him how to change and program the different sounds. Layne went nuts when he discovered he could program cartoon effects for the different pads.

“That’s what he really liked - the cartoon sounds,” Trujillo said. “He just got a kick out of that. He was just scrolling through the bank sounds on the little brain of the V drums, and just trying everything. He fucking loved it, he was like, ‘This is great. I want to get one of these. Where do these come from?’ ”

The other members of Alice in Chains and their crew were watching this, happy to see Layne happy and having fun. Shortly after, they brought out the cake and sang Happy Birthday and gave him a birthday card that they had all signed. Cisneros took a picture of Layne on the drumset as he was about to blow out the candles.

While Layne was playing around, he showed no indication of being ready to work. Eventually, Layne said he wanted to do everything - write lyrics and track his vocals - that night. By that point, it was almost five o’clock in the morning, and everyone was exhausted, some having been in the studio for almost 20 hours. Jerden, under the impression they still had the next day to work, met with the band and decided to call it a night, telling them Carlstrom was tired and they’d come back and finish on Sunday.

At that point, Layne said he had to go back to Seattle to attend his sister’s wedding, but Jerry tersely cut him off. According to Jerden, he said, “Laaaaaayne,” in an exasperated tone of voice.

“[Layne] turned into this little kid that had been reprimanded severely by his parents. It probably didn’t sound like anything, but I’ll tell you it was one of the strangest things I ever saw, how Jerry just wasn’t putting up with Layne’s bullshit anymore, and Layne who had such a strong personality had completely turned into this nothing.”

Layne acted like he was afraid, terrified of Jerry. He just sat there and froze up

Dave Jerden

“He wasn’t crying, but he looked like he was about to cry. He reverted to about a four-year-old boy,” Jerden explained. “Layne acted like he was afraid, terrified of Jerry. He just sat there and froze up. I don’t remember him saying another thing that night. Jerry totally understood me, he was cool with the fact that we had to stop and he didn’t argue with me at all. Jerry did not argue, the rest of the band did not argue. He knew that I’d been told that I had Layne until Sunday, and that bullshit of him saying all of the sudden, he has to go to a wedding?”

“So I blew up and I said, ‘Listen, I’m not here to be your friend. I have a job to do,’” he told Layne. Trujillo thinks Layne may have thought Jerden was mad at him, possibly from memories of the blowup during the Dirt sessions when Jerden confronted him about his drug use.

Jerden was skeptical, thinking Layne was using the wedding as an excuse so he could go back to Seattle to get drugs. Whatever his intentions were, evidence shows Jerden’s skepticism was accurate. According to public records from the King County Recorder’s office, Liz Elmer and her fiancée Greg Coats applied for a marriage license on May 26, 1998, were married on June 1, and filed the marriage certificate on June 11 - more than two months before this recording session.

According to Layne’s other sister Jamie Elmer, “They got married just at the justice of the peace, and they had their two best friends there. Nobody else was there.”

“I’ve seen pictures of my sister and her husband Greg in the court. And it’s with her best friend, and Greg's friend. But it was the four of them, and I’m pretty darn sure that Layne wasn’t there.”

There was a wedding party in mid-June that “Layne very well may have planned on coming to, but didn’t make it to, because that’s just sometimes what would happen. So, to his credit, he may have definitely been trying to get there for a wedding party, or that was his plan. But I don’t remember him there.” Jim Elmer, Ken Elmer and Kathleen Austin also attended the party. All three of them said Layne was not there.

At that point, the band members left. Jerden tried to book a studio in Seattle for Layne’s convenience to record his vocals, but by that point Layne didn’t want to work with him anymore. Susan was furious.

“Susan Silver called me up and read me the fucking riot act. She says my career was based on Alice in Chains, which is totally bullshit. I’ve worked with a lot of famous people before that. I had a lot of hit records that I produced before,” Jerden recalled. Rolling Stone got wind of the episode and wrote a story about it.”

Toby Wright got a call from Layne and Kevan Wilkins, asking if he would be willing to finish the project.

He booked time at Robert Lang Studios to record the vocals and mix it with the material from the session with Jerden.

“At that point, Jerry and Layne weren’t getting along at all. So I had one guy in, and I would have another guy in, after he was done. Those two songs required a lot of Pro Tools editing. That was one of the first times Alice was ever even on Pro Tools. Because Layne would do something, he’d go home, Jerry would come in, I’d change it for him, he’d go home. Layne would come in and hear what we did, and he’d change it again. So it was a lot of digital manipulation,” Wright said.

Recording Layne’s vocals was difficult because of the loss of his teeth, which resulted in a lisp that affected his speech and singing ability. Consequently, they tried to stay away from lyrics that accentuated his lisp.

“It was kind of hard to do that, because it shows up pretty much everywhere on those tracks. But it was easy for me because Layne and I got along really well. So I didn’t have any problem with him at all. It was just a matter of getting him into the studio, having him sit down and get creative.”

Get Born Again and Died were the last songs Layne recorded with Alice in Chains.

From Alice in Chains by David de Sola. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49